Djamila Bouhired – Algerian Freedom Fighter

*Trigger warning; rape & torture*

Djamila was born in Al-Qasaba neighbourhood in colonial Algeria in 1935 to an Algerian father and a Tunisian mother. Her family was a middle class family and she was the only daughter amongst seven sons.

Djamila started her national struggle against the French colonisation from a very young age. She went to a French school where they were forced to sing the anthem ‘France is our Mother’ whereas Djamila would say instead ‘Algeria is our Mother’, which ended up in her getting punished.

Aged twenty Djamila joined the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) when the revolution broke in 1954, and she was the first to volunteer to plant bombs in roads used by French military occupation. Algerian women played a major role in fighting against the French colonial regime, women were either involved in providing support for the fighters or fought in armed operations.

Djamila was involved in the battle for Algiers which occurred in 1957. Unfortunately, on April 9, 1975 she was arrested by the French occupation, when she was raped and severely tortured as the French military occupation used electro shocks on her wounded leg, her breast and genitalia which resulted in bleeding and amenorrhea. The French militants brutally tortured her hoping that she would reveal information about FLN leader Yasif Saadi, but she did not and for that reason she was sentenced to death.

Her imprisonment drew a lot of regional and international media attention. Many people marched the streets chanting for her release, and presidents such as Jamal Abed Al Nasser called for her freedom. Following that pressure on the colonial French regime, her sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. She was released in 1962 and then married her French lawyer Jacques Vergès, in 1965, and had two children Lias and Maryam. They both worked together on a magazine called Revolution Africaine, which focused on African nationalist movements. The couple separated in 1991 and she currently lives alone in Algeria.

Djamila Bouhired was an important part in the struggle for the freedom of Algeria, and is still a very significant figure that calls for protests to improve legal, social, political and economic situations of women.

She says:

“I am pleased that my life has meaning and a direction that I chose from the very beginning, which is that of the Algerian people’s struggle against colonialism and oppression from foreigners…I cannot express my happiness to be in the maquis better than by briefly taking stock of my positive experiences: Firstly, I became aware of the superiority of our organisation although I already knew that our struggle needed fighters and leaders. I understood that our army encompasses everything and assigns everybody the appropriate role and gives them the necessary responsibility…. Secondly and equally important, I understood that the enormous apparatus that our leaders have rapidly set up rests on solid and proven foundations such as the confidence, devotion, participation and even heroism of our civilian population.”

Written for Sheroes of History by Nof Nasser Eddin

Find out more…

There are several films which feature Djamila as a character and examine the Algerian War of Independence.  The 1966 film The Battle of Algiers and 1958 Jamila the Algerian and the documentary film Terror’s Advocate.

There is a longer, and more detailed account of Djamila’s life here.

See powerful photos of the Algerian-French war here and a timeline of the conflict here.


Karolina Widerström – Sweden’s First Female Physician

Karolina Widerström, born in 1856, enjoyed a long and productive career not only as a physician but also as a politician and a champion of women’s rights. Her father, a physiotherapist, encouraged his daughter to follow in his footsteps, which she did. However, Widerström soon realised that she wanted to go into medicine.

Women were given the right to obtain an academic degree in Sweden in 1873, and Widerström began her medical studies in Uppsala in 1879. She received a licentiate degree in medicine from the Karolinska Institute in 1888.

Because the right to study and obtain a degree did not, for women, include the right to possess a government post, the first generation of female physicians usually started private practices; Widerström opened her first practice in 1889.

Karolina wrote in a letter to Dr Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead, another feminist physician, that “[w]hen I started, people had been waiting and longing for a female physician, some for many years. So of course there was a bit of a stampede to reach the one who happened to be the first”. Widerström’s surgery was legendarily busy, with long queues of patients.

The ideal for women during the 19th century was to be completely ignorant of sexual matters. Venereal disease was very common, but male physicians tended to keep female patients ignorant of venereal contagion and its source – usually the husband. Not only was Widerström determined to provide education on sexual matters, she was also able to discuss intimate matters that patients were reluctant to speak to a male physician about. For Widerström, education was important – too many women, she argued, lived in ignorance as a result of the demand for chastity.

Widerström wrote a book on sexual health, Kvinnohygien (“Female Hygiene”), which was published in seven editions between 1899 and 1932. Kvinnohygien explained, in simple language, the workings of the female reproductive system, and discussed women’s health in general.

A second part, Kvinnohygien II, was published in 1905, and discussed the symptoms and treatment of venereal diseases, but also raised the issue of prostitution and the regulation of prostitutes. Regulation was common in many European countries in the 19th century, and entailed registering and inspecting prostitutes. Karolina Widerström, unlike most of her male colleagues, recognised the fact that socioeconomic factors pushed women into prostitution. Arguing that there is no supply without demand, she pointed out that prostitution is not a problem created by women, and that subjecting one sex to regulation while the other is free to keep spreading the disease is not only morally and legally questionable but completely inefficient.

Widerström called for equal pay for equal work, and social reforms to support families – decades before these ideas gained wider political recognition. Widerström was instrumental in the process which led to the abolition of regulation, and the introduction of sex education in all Swedish schools. Ever a proponent of education, Widerström argued that “ignorance is not innocence”.

Ellen Key, the Swedish feminist and writer, wrote to her friend Karolina Widerström in 1919: “Thank you for everything since the winter of 1876 – now 43 years ago! You and I could have had grandchildren by now if we had used our time [for that]: Now we have work only. But that is our progeny!”

Written for Sheroes of History by Ingrid Lyberg.

Find out more…

Here is a timeline of events in Swedish women’s history; can you find Karolina’s name?

There are some more photos of Karolina on this website.






Margaret Bondfield

Margaret Bondfield was a leading trade unionist, a camaigner for women’s rights and the first female member of the British Cabinet.

Margaret was born in Somerset in 1873. She came from a big family and was the eleventh child! Her parents were textile workers, and her father was known for his radical political views.

When she was just 14 Margaret left home to go and work in a fabric shop in Hove. While working there she became friends with Louisa Martindale, who was part of the women’s rights movement. Louisa invited Margaret to her house and let her borrow books about working people’s rights and socialism which began to really inspire young Margaret’s mind.

When Margaret moved to London in 1894 she continued to work as a shop assistant. However she found that the conditions for shop workers there were much worse than they had been for her in Brighton. Workers could be expected to work up to 100 hours per week and were often treated very poorly by their bosses.

Margaret began to secretly write about what it was really like for these, mostly female, shop assistants. She used the name ‘Grace Dare’ so that no-one would know it was really her writing. Each month her undercover reports appeared in a magazine called The Shop Assistant. Her findings became part of a report about conditions for shop workers which the Women’s Industrial Council published in 1898.

She was elected to join the Shop Assistants Union District Council, which was the first of many roles she would fulfil in different unions and organisations.

Around this time she met Mary Macarthur, another important figure in the history of unions and women’s rights. They became life long friends and allies in the fight for equal rights for women. In 1906 Margaret and Mary founded the first general union for women, the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW).

Margaret dedicated her life to working for the Unions she was involved with, recruiting shop workers to join the National Union of Shop Assistants and speaking publicly about workers’ rights. She said,

“I had no vocation for wifehood or motherhood, but an urge to serve the Union.”

In 1910 the government invited Margaret to join an Advisory Committee looking at new health insurance laws. She fought for women’s needs and as a result persuaded the government to include benefits for pregnant women in their new bill. Importantly, she also made sure that the law said the benefits received by these women would be their own property (not their husbands.)

By this time people had begun to campaign for votes for women. The most well known suffrage group, the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU), led by Emmeline Pankhurst, was asking for equal voting rights with men. The problem was, that at this time not even all men were allowed to vote – it depended on how much property you owned, which meant many poorer people, male or female, were not allowed to vote.

Margaret Bondfield felt that she couldn’t agree with the WSPU, and instead joined, and became chairperson, of the Adult Suffrage Society. She believed that everyone, regardless of their gender or status, should be allowed to vote. Because she worked with, and came from, the working class she couldn’t support a new voting bill which would only benefit the middle and upper classes.

Margaret had another disagreement with the main suffragist movements at the start of the First World War. At the outbreak of war the WSPU worked out a deal with the government that meant all the suffragettes who were in prison would be released; in return they would stop their campaigning and put their energy into supporting the war effort.

Margaret however spoke out against the war. She joined with the Women’s Freedom League to form the Women’s Peace Crusade, and throughout the war campaigned for a negotiated peace.

During the First World War the number of women workers increased greatly. As men were told that they had to join the army, female workers were needed to fill their places in jobs at home. However, women were not paid the same as the men who had been doing those jobs. As well as campaigning for peace, Margaret devoted her time to fighting for better pay for women workers during the war. Through the NFWW she argued that they should receive a minimum of £1 per week and that there should be equal pay for equal work.

At the end of the war in 1918 the government introduced a new voting law which allowed some women to vote, but it was only women who were over 30 and owned their own property (or were married to a man who did!) Margaret was not satisfied with this law, calling it ‘mean and inadequate’.

Another thing which happened that year was much better news, Margaret was elected to the Trade Unions Council. Five years later, in 1923, she became chairperson of the council, making her the first ever woman to fulfil the position!

It was also in 1923 that Margaret was elected to parliament. She was one of only three women who became Labour MPs (the other two were Susan Lawrence & Dorothy Jewson.)

The government finally introduced equal voting rights for EVERYONE in 1928. When they did Margaret was overjoyed. She said,

“Once and for all, we shall destroy the artificial barrier in the way of any women who want to get education in politics and who want to come forward and take their full share in the political life of their day”

The next year the Prime Minister, Ramsay McDonald made Margaret his Minister of Labour – this made her the first woman ever to have a seat on the British Cabinet!

She remained in politics for some time. Some of the ideas she supported or put forward were not always popular and eventually she left politics to go her own way.

During the Second World War she led a drive for more women to be on the police force and founded the Women’s Group on Public Welfare. In her investigations for this group she highlighted the real poverty that many inner city children, who had now become evacuees, were living in.

Margaret died in 1953 after a life fully dedicated to creating justice and equality for people from all walks of life, and especially for women.


Find out more…

Have a look online at the National Portrait Gallery, they have some great photos of Margaret.

There are a few fantastic old videos of Margaret and other female MPs at the Pathe website. Have a look here.

You can actually still buy a copy of the report Margaret produced during the Second World War, Our Towns, A Close Up.

Find out more about women and work in the 19th Century on the brilliant Striking Women website, which has loads of interactive resources.



Rosa Parks

This post is written by Eve Freeman, who is 8 years old, making her our youngest Shero contributor yet! She was inspired when she found out about Rosa Parks and has written a short piece about what she discovered.

If you know a Young Shero (or hero) that would like to write for the Sheroes of History blog, please get in touch!


Rosa Parks was a black woman who fought for the rights of African-Americans. Her full-name was Rosa Louise McCauley and she was born in Alabama in the United States of America on February 4, 1913.

In that time, black and white people were forced by the government to do everything separately, for example, they had different schools, different churches, and even different drinking fountains.

Rosa Parks was a very brave woman. Firstly, when a special train came into town (The Freedom Train), Rosa led some black students onto the train and stood in the line with the white people even though the people in the town didn’t like it.

Secondly, on her way home from a hard day’s work, she got on the bus and, just as she was sitting down, a white person came through the door. The bus driver said, all the black people need to stand up to let the white person sit down, but Rosa refused. The bus driver said to Rosa that he would call the police if she didn’t stand up. Soon, the police came and arrested Rosa. After this, African-American people avoided the buses for over a year.

Martin Luther King was one of the people who was inspired by Rosa Parks. Eventually, the government changed their mind and said it was wrong to separate black people and white people. I think what Rosa did was particularly amazing because some people would not think that a woman could stand-up and be brave and strong.

By Eve Freeman


Find out more…

Rosa wrote a book about her part in the Civil Rights movement, which you could read if you want to find out more about what it was like for her. You can find it here.

There is a fascinating interview with Rosa Parks that you can read here.

There are lots of videos  all about Rosa’s life that you can watch on the internet. Here is one with an interview with Rosa herself:


Kate Sheppard

Kate Sheppard

‘All that separates, whether of race, class, creed or sex is inhuman and must be overcome.’
Kate Sheppard

Born Catherine Wilson Malcolm on 10 March 1847 in Liverpool, England, Kate – as she preferred to be called – spent her early childhood in London, Dublin and Nairn. Kate’s uncle, who was a minister of the Free Church of Scotland in Nairn, was influential in her religious and moral education and her later adherence to Christian Socialism.

In 1869 after almost a three month journey, Kate, along with her mother and three of her siblings, arrived in New Zealand to join her sister, who had already been living in Christchurch. In 1871 Kate married Christchurch grocer Walter Allen Sheppard. During the early years of her marriage she became an active member of the Trinity Congregational Church and with other members of her family was involved in the temperance movement.

In 1885 Kate became a founding member of the New Zealand Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The union quickly realised that in order for legislative reforms pertaining to women and children to be carried out more effectively, women would need the right to vote and the right to representation in parliament.

Franchise departments within local unions were formed in 1887. As national superintendent of the franchise and legislation department, Kate had various responsibilities. Recognised as an accomplished public speaker and writer, she prepared and distributed pamphlets promoting women’s right to vote, wrote to the press and stimulated debate and discussion about this and other women’s rights issues within both the WCTU and the wider community.

In 1891, the first of three petitions was presented to parliament by the franchise department of the WCTU containing the signatures of more than 9,000 women. The second petition in 1892 had more than 19,000 signatures. Kate continued her work for women’s suffrage and by 1893, the WCTU had managed to obtain nearly 32,000 signatures from women demanding the right to vote.

The petition was presented to parliament and on September 19 1893, the Electoral Act was passed giving women the right to vote. Adamant that all women of all classes exercised this right, Kate and the other members of the WCTU attempted to enrol as many women as possible leading up to the 1893 election. By the time the election had arrived, approximately 84% of the female population had enrolled to vote. On polling day 82% cast their votes. New Zealand had become the first country in the world that allowed women to exercise their right to vote.

Kate continued her work both at home and abroad for women’s rights. Her practical proposals for reform were many and included proportional representation, marriage equality and the right for women to run for parliament. Nevertheless, the first woman MP, Elizabeth McCombs, would not be elected into the New Zealand Parliament until 1933.

Kate Sheppard died on the 13 July 1934, The Christchurch Times stated:
‘A great women has gone, whose name will remain an inspiration to the daughters of New Zealand while our history endures.’

Written for Sheroes of History by  Anne Saunders @fantasmoo.  “I love history and all things tech, especially when they both work properly.”

References: Tessa K. Malcolm. ‘Sheppard, Katherine Wilson’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 12-Feb-2014

‘Women vote in first general election’, URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 27-Aug-2014

Find out more…

Find out more about Kate Sheppard’s life here.

Kate Sheppard appears on the New Zealand ten dollar note! Have a look at it here.

New Zealand was the first place in the world to give women the vote. Watch this fascinating infographic to see how and when other countries followed suit:



Princess Pingyang – ‘No Ordinary Woman’

Princess Pingyang was decidedly more fearsome than her name might suggest. She led an army that helped to establish one of China’s greatest dynasties, and as her father said, ‘she was no ordinary woman’.

Born in 600 AD, Pingyang was the daughter of Li Yuan. Li was born a peasant and had risen through the ranks of the army to become a military commander. The Emperor at the time was the second leader of the Sui Dynasty and was known as Yangdi. Yangdi was not a popular ruler. The people of China saw him as a villain and grew increasingly unhappy with his rule, the things he spend money on and the rising taxes. The whispers of rebellion began to stir as more and more people grew opposed to him.

Yangdi began to grow suspicious of everyone as thoughts of overthrowing him spread. He thought that Li Yuan was plotting against him and decided he needed him taken out. Li Yuan’s hand was forced: rebel now or live in fear and possibly face death. The time was right and Li decided to lead a rebellion to topple Yangdi’s rule and establish order and peace across the land. But first he had to defeat Yangdi’s armies.

When Li Yuan decided to rebel, Pingyang was living with her husband Chai Shao, who happened to be the leader of the palace guard! Li Yuan managed to get word to Pingyang and Chai Shao to warn them that he was planning a rebellion and they might want to distance themselves from the Emperor. Chai Shao immediately left to gather the cavalry and ride out to join Li Yuan. He was worried about what would happen to Pingyang, but she made it clear she could look after herself.

She actually did quite a bit more than just ‘look after herself’. She escaped to her family’s estate where she used their money to feed the starving people who were in the surrounding area. Her compassion won their loyalty and soon the strongest of them came together under her leadership to form an army.

She proceeded to go with her army from province to province, convincing other groups of rebels to join her and help in her father’s rebellion (you could call it a rebel alliance..ahem). Eventually she commanded an army of over 70,000 troops. They became known as ‘The Army of the Lady’.

She had very strict rules about the behaviour of her soldiers. She banned them from looting, pillaging and raping. Instead they distirbuted food to the hungry, winning the people’s affection and loyalty . Across the land they were seen as liberators, not conquerers.

Until this point the Emperor hadn’t really taken her amry seriously because it was led by a woman (his mistake!) Now he was beginning to get worried as Li Yuan and Pingyang’s armies eroded more and more of his power. He sent a battalion to try and destroy The Army of the Lady, and Pingyang along with them, but they were swiftly defeated.

In the final battle for the capital city Pingyang joined forces with her husband and defeated the last remnants of the Sui Dynasty. Emperor Yangdi fled, but was eventually killed.

Li Juan became the new emperor, calling himself Emperor Gaozu of Tang and established what is known as the Tang Dynasty, which became one of the most prosperous times in China’s history and has been described as a ‘golden age’. He gave Pingyang the titles of Princess and ‘Zhao’, which means very wise & virtuous.

Sadly the young Princess Pingyang died only a few years after her father became Emperor. She was only 23 at the time of her death, which reminds us how young she had been when raising & leading an entire army! Her father gave her a grand, military funeral, including a band, which was unheard of for a woman in those days in China (and kind of against their rules). When offcials questioned his decision to do so he said

“As you know the Princess mustered an army that helped us defeat the Sui Dynasty. She participated in many battles, and her help was decisive in founding the Tang Dynasty. The Princess personally beat the drums and rose in righteous rebellion to help me establish the dynasty…She was no ordinary woman.”


Find out more….

Find out about other female warriors from China’s history here.

This book, Princesses Behaving Badly mentions Pingyang amongst other rebellious and awesome princesses from history.

Find out more about what life was like for women under the Tang Dynasty here.



Empress Matilda

Empress Matilda was the daughter of King Henry I of England and his first wife Matilda of Scotland. At aged 8, Matilda was sent to Germany in betrothal to Henry V of Germany, who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope.

As Henry’s Empress, Matilda wielded authority when her husband was absent. She gained practical experience of exercising political power and widespread popularity as ‘Good Matilda’.  When her husband died in 1125, Matilda was just 23 and childless, so she returned to England.

During her absence, her only legitimate brother William had died in 1120 in the ‘White Ship disaster’, when his boat sank during a drunken crossing of the English Channel. This left King Henry and England without a direct male heir at a time when every Norman succession had been fought over. To ensure the succession, Henry’s barons swore on oath to recognise Matilda, and any of her future children, as heirs to the throne.

In order to secure his Norman borders Matilda’s father arranged for her to marry Geoffrey of Anjou, son of the Count, who was then just 13 years old. After marriage to a powerful Emperor, Matilda protested this match to the son of a mere Count over a decade younger than her. She did this both before and after the marriage took place. The couple were known not to like each other, but after separation and reconciliation, they had three sons, Henry, Geoffrey and William.

When Matilda’s father died her cousin, Stephen Count of Blois, seized the throne and was proclaimed King by the people of London and was swiftly crowned. While her husband campaigned in Normandy Matilda challenged this, supported by her illegitimate half-brother, Robert of Gloucester. But the English barons claimed that they had been forced by the late King Henry to take their oaths of allegiance to her.

A civil war broke out between the two factions vying for power resulting in a period known as ‘The Anarchy’ and described as ‘when Christ and his saints slept’. In the conflict Stephen’s main supporter was his wife Matilda of Boulogne, who negotiated treaties and rallied troops for her husband. The war went on for almost 20 years, and legend has it that during this time Matilda made a daring escape from the besieged Oxford Castle where she climbed out of a window and escaped by trekking across a frozen river to safety.

At the peak of her power during April-September 1141, Stephen was captured, and while Matilda waited to be crowned Queen, the Londoners who were loyal to Stephen chased her from the city. In contrast to her popularity when Imperial Regent at her first husband’s court, Matilda was branded in chronicles as a haughty woman for her display of power during this time.

Eventually the war moved on to the next generation with both Stephen’s and Matilda’s eldest sons leading factions, and when Stephen’s son died he recognised Matilda’s son Henry his heir.  Henry would go on to become King Henry II of England and marry another powerful woman of the period, Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose first husband was the King of France. During her son’s reign, Matilda ruled for him in Normandy, and eventually died in 1167 at Rouen in France.

Overall, Matilda’s failure to gain power independently of a male was for centuries held as proof that women should not, and could not, sit on the English throne. She has also been marginalised by historians, particularly in the line of succession of British Kings and Queens, despite effectively ruling the country for 6 months in 1141. Matilda deserves to be recognised as a woman who attempted to uphold her rights despite the restraints of her time and in the face of disapproval of her as a woman making a bid for power.


Written for Sheroes of History by Stacey Dodd.


Find out more…

In this episode from the BBC documentary series She Wolves Helen Caster talks about Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine

The Lady of The English is a historical fiction novel based on the life of the Empress Matilda.

Marjorie Chibnall has written a factual book all about Matilda; The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English